The Top Chess Players in the World

GM Sergey Karjakin

Full name
Sergey Karjakin
Jan 12, 1990 (age 31)‎
Place of birth
Simferopol, Ukrainian SSR, Soviet Union



Sergey Karjakin is an elite chess player who became the youngest-ever GM at 12 years and seven months of age. Most notably, he pushed Magnus Carlsen—typically considered one of the two greatest chess players of all time (along with Garry Kasparov)—to tiebreakers in the 2016 World Chess Championship. Karjakin nearly won the most prestigious title in chess to go along with two world titles in rapid (2012) and blitz (2016) that came at the expense of the world champion.

Renowned for his brilliant defensive play, Russia’s “Minister of Defense” is a regular fixture of top chess tournaments. He’s among a select group of players capable of dethroning Carlsen as the best chess player in the world.

Youth and Early Chess Career (1995 to 2009)

Karjakin is the quintessential chess prodigy. In fact, he may be the top prodigy in history.

At the age of five, Karjakin learned to play chess. Trained by Ukranian GM Vladislav Borovikov, Karjakin shocked the chess world with his progress. He became the youngest-ever player to earn an IM title (11 years, 11 months) at the time, which was since been broken (GM Praggnanandhaa now holds the record at 10 years and 10 months of age). Karjakin also became the world’s youngest grandmaster at 12 years and seven months old—a record that still stands.

Sergey Karjakin at age 11
Sergey Karjakin at age 11. Photo courtesy filmmaker Alexander Turpin.

Karjakin performed well in tournaments at a young age. For instance, he won the U10 European Youth Chess Championship in 1999 and the U12 World Youth Chess Championship in 2001. When he was 11 years old, Karjakin was the official second for Ruslan Ponomariov during his world championship match with Vassily Ivanchuk in 2002 (a chess second works as an assistant for top players, helping them research opponents and prepare opening repertoires).

Karjakin beat Alexandra Kosteniuk in 2003 during a six-game match by a score of four to two. In 2004, Karjakin beat the current world champion, Vladimir Kramnik, in a blitz game. The same year, Karjakin won team gold and individual gold in the 36th Olympiad for Ukraine. Additionally, he was the only player to win against a computer in the Man vs Machine Team Championship 2004 (Ponomariov and Veselin Topalov also took part in the event).

Karjakin first appeared on the world’s top 100 list in 2005, at the age of 15 with a rating of 2635. By 18 years of age, he broke the 2700-rating threshold that often leads to the “Super GM” distinction. Karjakin won his first major tournament at Wijk aan Zee in 2009, ahead of second-place Levon Aronian, Teimour Radjabov and Sergei Movesian, as well as third-place finishers Magnus Carlsen and Leinier Domínguez Pérez.

A Seasoned, Elite Player (2009 to 2016)

After winning in Wijk aan Zee at just 19 years old, Karjakin launched a new period of his chess career as a young adult. He had several impressive tournament performances leading up to his meeting with Magnus Carlsen in 2016.

In 2010, Karjakin finished second in a three-way tiebreak with Levon Aronian (first) and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (third) at the Tal Memorial. The tournament included many of the world’s best players; for instance, Karjakin’s wins were against Vladimir Kramnik and Boris Gelfand, and they finished seventh and eighth, respectively, out of 10 players. Another noteworthy performance that year came at the 39th Olympiad, when Karjakin played for his new team, Russia. He took an individual medal for going 8/10 on board 4 with a performance rating of 2859.

At the World Rapid Chess Championship in 2012, Karjakin won gold outright, ahead of runner-up Carlsen and third-place Veselin Topalov, with a 15/18 score. One month later, Karjakin tied Fabiano Caruana for first at the annual Dortmund Sparkassen Chess-Meeting tournament, but finished second on tiebreakers.

In 2013, Karjakin took part in what he called the best tournament of his career. He won the Norway Chess 2013 tournament with a 6/9 score, edging out Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura by 1/2 point. Peter Svidler, Levon Aronian and Viswanathan Anand, who finished with 5/9 points, showcase the caliber of the tournament (Karjakin was rated lower than all five players). It’s interesting to note that a blitz tournament decided the play order for the main tournament; Karjakin won that too, beating Carlsen, Anand and Nakamura by 1/2 point. The following year, Karjakin repeated by winning Norway Chess 2014, once again beating Carlsen.

Sergey Karjakin vs Veselin Topalov
Sergey Karjakin vs Veselin Topalov

In 2015, Karjakin won the 2015 World Cup after going down two games to Svidler. That performance qualified him for the Candidates’ Tournament and the right to challenge World Champion Magnus Carlsen.

Recent Highlights (2016 to 2018)

At the 2016 Candidates’ Tournament in Moscow, Karjakin finished ahead of Fabiano Caruana and Viswanathan Anand to win the event. That set the encounter between Karjakin and Magnus Carlsen in the 2016 World Chess Championship.

It took place in New York city in mid- to late-November, and the format was 12 classical games and tiebreak games (plus an Armageddon game) if needed. Karjakin pushed the world champion to tiebreaks, as each player had one win and five draws during the classical portion of the match. Yet, in the rapid tiebreaks, there were two draws and then Carlsen beat Karjakin in two subsequent games, allowing him to retain the title.

Karjakin had revenge one month later. In late December, Karjakin beat Carlsen on tiebreaks to win the 2016 World Blitz Championship. Those two players (16.5/21) finished a full two points ahead of Daniil Dubov, Hikaru Nakamura and Alexander Grischuk.

Sergey Karjakin won the 2016 World Blitz Championship
Sergey Karjakin won the 2016 World Blitz Championship

At the 2018 Candidates’ Tournament, Karjakin finished third after tiebreaks. He tied with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov behind Fabiano Caruana, who, like Karjakin, pushed Carlsen to tiebreaks in the 2018 World Chess Championship.

Present and Future

Sergey Karjakin defeated Viswanathan Anand
Sergey Karjakin defeated Viswanathan Anand. Photo courtesy of Shamkir Chess.

Karjakin is a regular at elite tournaments. For instance, at the 2019 Gashimov Memorial in April, he placed well, tying with Ding Liren for second place behind Magnus Carlsen. At the time of publication, Karjakin is taking part in the Grand Prix series that serves as qualification for the 2020 World Chess Championship.

Will he have another chance at dethroning Carlsen? That remains to be seen, but Karjakin is clearly a mainstay in elite tournaments and among the best players in the world. He’s demonstrated that he can hang with and even defeat (repeatedly) the world champion considered to be one of the greatest players in the history of chess. Perhaps Karjakin can play spoiler to Carlsen’s potential legacy as the best of all time.

Whatever the case may be, Karjakin has already built a legacy in chess. The chess prodigy is the youngest grandmaster in history (12 years, 7 months and 0 days—three of the other youngest chess grandmasters in history gained the title at 12 years of age). He nearly beat Carlsen for the world championship to go along with other world titles he claimed in blitz and rapid chess. Those accomplishments are the highlights for a world-class player who turns 30 in January 2020. He has plenty of time to shock the chess world yet again.

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